Franz Kafka, frustrated with his living quarters and day job, wrote in a letter to Felice Bauer in 1912, “time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant, straightforward life is not possible then one must try to wriggle through by subtle maneuvers.”

Kafka is one of 161 inspired, and inspiring, minds—among them, novelists, poets, playwrights, painters, philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians—whose daily rituals are recorded in these pages. Like Kafka, they worked in the face of countless obstacles (some of them self-inflicted) and developed a fascinating range of “subtle maneuvers” to get their work done each day, from waking early to staying up late, drinking vast quantities of coffee to taking long daily walks and precisely timed naps. Thomas Wolfe wrote standing in the kitchen, using the top of the refrigerator as his desk, dreamily fondling his “male configurations.” Jean-Paul Sartre chewed on Corydrane tablets (a mix of amphetamine and aspirin), ingesting ten times the recommended dose each day. Descartes liked to linger in bed, his mind wandering in sleep “through woods, gardens and enchanted palaces” where he experienced “every pleasure imaginable.”

Here are: Anthony Trollope, who demanded of himself three thousand words each morning (250 words every fifteen minutes for three hours) before going off to his job at the postal service, which he kept for 33 years during the writing of more than two dozen books; George Balanchine, who liked to do his own laundry and who did most of his “work” while ironing; George Gershwin, who worked for twelve hours a day, from late morning to midnight, composing at the piano in pajamas, bathrobe, and slippers.

Here also are the daily rituals of Jane Austen, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Pablo Picasso, Leo Tolstoy, Andy Warhol, John Updike, Twyla Tharp, and Igor Stravinsky (who was never able to compose unless sure no one could hear him and, when blocked, stood on his head to “clear the brain.”)

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